Friday, February 4, 2005
Taking the hi-tech road from China to America
This article is the second in a series of three articles about the Chinese tradition in Carlisle today. Events sponsored by the Carlisle Cultural Council will celebrate the Chinese New Year in February.
Xu's expertise in technology provided his ticket from communist China to a democratic America. Xu, currently employed by Eastman Kodak, was one of the first engineers to develop the digital camera here in the U.S. Trained engineers do find it easier than most to immigrate to this country. What makes Xu different is that although he had a difficult time under a repressive regime, he has chosen to return to his native land as a visitor multiple times. In fact a book, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, inspired him to return to China with his camera to capture the mountain ranges.
"I had to visit there," says Xu. In fact, he rented a jeep and covered almost 10,000 miles in Tibet and Western China. He visited many places on his trips to China between 2000 and 2003.
The dozen framed photographs on display at the Gleason Library clearly show the technical expertise of the photographer. Yet his keen ability to capture images of nature also reveals that there is an artist behind the lens.
Growing up in communist China
Born in Jilin City in Northeast China, Xu lived in a tight-knit family. Xu's parents met while working for a high-security government factory called Jilin Carbon. The city was located about 250 miles from the Russian border. His father originally came from the Szechwan region and finished college right before the communist takeover in 1948. Born the son of a landlord, Xu's father was socially excluded while growing up. He saw firsthand how communism could destroy people. Xu's paternal grandfather committed suicide in the 1950s. The family felt it was a direct result of the suppression.
"My mother was even worse," Xu said speaking of her background. "Her father cooperated with the Japanese while the Japanese occupied Manchuria." His maternal grandfather spent many years in prison.
Both of Xu's parents found their careers stymied by their unpopular personal histories. Nonetheless, the hard-working couple managed to succeed and the family was relatively well-off for the times. His father was a noted engineer and his mother was a teacher. In 1976, the family got a television — the first one in a city that had about 20,000 residents at the time.
"My parents only had two kids," says Xu of the family's good economic situation. "Most of my friends' families had three or four [children]."
Education provides a passport out of China
Colleges in China did not admit students at large in the decade after 1966 according to Xu. In 1976 when Mao died, the new leaders decided that education was important to the country and decided to open admission to everyone.
"In 1978, the year I graduated from high school, [there] was the first national exam for college," says Xu. He recalled it was a major development. Previous years he would've been sent to the countryside for "re-education" with the farmers. College was not a possibility for someone with his shaky social and political background.
"The acceptance rate was extremely low," says Xu of his high school class of 1978. "In my year, we had about 400 students graduating. Only six went to college." Up to that point, Xu considers himself largely "self-taught." He didn't learn much in school back then, particularly as the teachers were not college-educated. He borrowed and copied textbooks from friends in order to learn.
As part of the national exam, Xu took the English test and got a score of 17 out of 100. Fortunately for his college ambitions, his physics score was 99. He studied English for the first time in college, but found himself focusing on French to qualify for a possible internship in Paris. After graduation, however, due to his perceived "risky background," Xu was sent to Mongolia to be a teaching assistant. When his father became ill with cancer, however, Xu returned to Jilin City. Here he was able to secure a position as a support engineer at Jilin Carbon.
Caught in the Tiananmen Square fallout
In 1988 Xu moved to Beijing to work for an American company, Beard Instruments, headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts, and managed by a former Carlisle resident, Jean Jones. Two previous student movements in Beijing were suppressed, and Jones knew that Xu was a bit of a radical and, as he himself called it, "a trouble-maker." Xu believes that she was afraid that he would become involved when the situation began heating up again, and so she sent him on a business trip to Southern China to keep him safe. At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June, 1989, Xu was on the last scheduled train back into Beijing.
"That was the morning of the fifth," says Xu. "I didn't know anything. No taxi would take me back to the office. It was 2 a.m., but that was strange. I started walking across the street to a hotel and halfway across I saw a tank." He immediately realized what was going on and began to cry.
Xu questioned people from the neighborhood, and found out about the student deaths. He witnessed the fire and destruction in the city. A trustworthy employee, Xu walked 20 miles back to the office and called his colleagues to ensure their safety. He e-mailed headquarters in Bedford to let them know everyone was fine, but that the office would be "closed indefinitely."
After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Xu realized that working for an American company would be difficult. He decided to apply for a visa and come to the United States. At this time, he had met a woman in Beijing who also was interested in emigrating to America. Her visa came through first, and she went to Colorado. He subsequently followed. The two would end up marrying.
Today Xu and his wife Changhua ("Carrie") live on Wolf Rock Road. They moved to town in 1996. The family includes son Changming, a second grader at the Carlisle Public School, and five-year-old daughter Rholee.
Looking at China today
Personal history is important to both Xu and his wife. They each have books covering their own family trees."History was twisted when the communist state took over," says Xu. "The stuff you learned from school was generally altered. My personal history was related to that history. You have to know what actually went on to understand that your grandfathers were not actually enemies of the people."
Xu believes interest in history is no longer important in China for two reasons. First, people choose to suppress their own histories due to perceived blemishes such as unwise political alliances or illegitimacies. Secondly, families may not know their history as it was erased during the Cultural Revolution.
"I am really the first person in my generation to visit my ancestors' homes," says Xu. He personally was interested, and that's why he did it.
Reluctant to classify the majority of the Chinese population as poor, Xu says they are "squeezed" for cash. Quoting a recent finding from the Chinese government, Xu relates about 10% of the country's inhabitants are considered middle class.
"The majority of people do not care to change China," says Xu. "Forty percent of the people living in the city have a pretty good living. They are middle-class. They have a house. They have a car." He notes that 5% of the country still takes in 25% of the wealth saying the ratio makes it "one of the worst countries."
"China has an infinite supply of cheap labor," he says. "The workers making products have had the same salary for the past ten years. Where does all the money go? It goes to the managers." He continues: "For better or worse, because China manufactures products, it keeps inflation in this country in check."
Nonetheless, there are ramifications. "Twenty percent of students cannot afford to go home for spring vacation," he says. After graduation, students find themselves competing for limited positions. In families, both husband and wife work out of necessity. Due to the competitive labor supply situation, companies would rather hire young males, according to Xu. Women tend to work in secretarial rather than management jobs.
China does not discriminate by race, says Xu. In fact, in Jilin City, he believes managers prefer to hire Korean rather than Chinese workers: "they work harder!" There is some discrimination towards Muslims in Western China where a region seeks independence. Allied with Bin Laden, people in this region are primarily Russian in background, according to Xu.
Suppression still exists. "You cannot go to church," Xu says. He recalls that he once went to a church as a student and was called in the next day to the principal's office to make a report. In terms of free speech, Xu believes that there is greater suppression than ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre. After an accident or a killing, witnesses will often claim not to have seen anything.
The journey continues
Xu looks forward to sharing a slideshow of photographs with the Carlisle community at the Gleason Library on February 10 at 7 p.m. in the Hollis Room. The photographer plans to keep his talk upbeat.
"I try to not be controversial now," admits Xu. In putting together his slideshow for Carlisle, however, he realized the dichotomy in the pictures he had taken in China on recent trips. There's a sharp transition between scenic Tibet and the inhabited shots of high-rise buildings from the cities. Due to the cultural focus of the Chinese New Year celebrations in Carlisle, Xu decided to keep his slideshow positive and focus on the beautiful landscapes of Tibet. He quickly admitted that might create another possible problem.
"Before I give my talk on Tibet, I will give a short introduction," says Xu. "People may not regard this as part of China."
If town residents are interested in his other pictures of China or in having a more complete understanding of China and issues, Xu says he would be willing to share them at another time. However, after taking a look at the breath-taking photos from Tibet, it is far more likely that attendees will be reserving the Gleason Library copy of Into Thin Air and perhaps planning their own trip from Carlisle to Tibet.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito